Volcano warning as smaller eruptions risk cascading us towards catastrophe

Tonga: Satellite images capture moment volcano erupts

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NASA has confirmed that the recent volcanic eruption in Tonga was hundreds of times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War 2. More than four-fifths of the Tongan population have been affected by the subsequent tsunami and falling ash. Just seven years ago, new land emerged in the South Pacific, linking the island of Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai together.

The recent eruption destroyed the new land, and “large chunks” of much of the two older islands, NASA said.

It has widely been believed that the bigger the eruption, or eruption risk, the worse it will be for society.

Yet research published in the journal Nature Communications by the University of Cambridge last year suggested too much focus is being placed on the risk of bigger, rarer eruptions.

Researchers at the British university’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) argued too little attention is given to more moderate eruptions in various regions, and the potential domino effect that could result from these.

They identified seven “pinch points”, where clusters of small, active volcanoes sit near crucial infrastructure.

These regions include Taiwan, North Africa, the North Atlantic, and parts of the northwestern United States.

Dr Lara Mani, lead author of the report, called on the world to “change how we view extreme volcanic risk”.

She said in 2021: “We need to move away from thinking in terms of colossal eruptions destroying the world, as portrayed in Hollywood films.

“The more probable scenarios involve lower-magnitude eruptions interacting with our societal vulnerabilities and cascading us towards catastrophe.”

Dr Mani added: “Even a minor eruption in one of the areas we identify could erupt enough ash or generate large enough tremors to disrupt networks that are central to global supply chains and financial systems.

“At the moment, calculations are too skewed towards giant explosions or nightmare scenarios, when the more likely risks come from moderate events that disable major international communications, trade networks or transport hubs.

“This is true of earthquakes and extreme weather as well as volcanic eruptions.”

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Larger eruptions with a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 8, the largest value on the index, tend to be associated with the most catastrophic eruptions.

The most recent eruption to measure 8 on the VEI was the Taupo Eruption of around 26,500 BCE in New Zealand.

The most recent eruption to measure 7 on the VEI, meanwhile, was the Mount Tambora eruption of 1815.

Yet Dr Mani and her colleagues argue smaller eruptions, reaching up to 6 on the VEI, could easily cause catastrophic destruction.

When Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, it measured 6 on the VEI, but its distance from vital infrastructure meant it caused less overall damage than others.

The 2010 eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano, meanwhile, was 100 times less in scale than Mount Pinatubo, but caused greater damage as northwesterly winds carried ash clouds and caused European airspace to be closed.

The Mediterranean was also identified as another “pinch point”. Both Vesuvius and Santorini could produce eruptions large enough to cause tsunamis that could seal off the Suez Canal, the report warned.

Dr Mani wrote: “We saw what a six-day closure to the Suez Canal did earlier this year, when a single stuck container ship cost up to $10 billion [£7.4 billion] a week in global trade.”

Likewise, eruptions in the American state of Washington could cause enormous ash clouds. These have the potential to cover Seattle in ash, shutting down both airports and seaports.

Modelling estimated that an eruption of Mount Rainier, 59 miles south of Seattle, could cause economic losses of up to $7 trillion in the five years that follow an eruption.

Researchers also identified the Luzon Strait in the South China Sea as another risk, as well as the Malacca Strait — through which 40 percent of global trade passes each year.

Slightly closer to home, they warned that a reawakening of the Icelandic volcanoes could disrupt some of the busiest air routes in the west.

An increase in seismic activity was detected in the Reykjanes peninsula at the end of last year, though this seems to have fizzled out since.

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